Review of QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING by SUSAN CAIN
Prepare yourself. Here comes my longest review to date. When I start a book, I start a Word document. As I read, I make notes - whether mental, actually written on a piece of scrap paper, or by bookmarking a noteworthy page - and add my thoughts to this ongoing document periodically in the form of bullet points. After finishing the book, I add any additional comments to my notes document. Then I add, cut, consolidate, and organize my bullet points into an outline before developing these thoughts into full sentences and paragraphs. Usually, I have about half a page of bullet points that turns into a 1-2 page review. Well, I knew QUIET would have quite the rambling review when I looked at my final “notes” and saw 4 pages of bullet points! Not to mention how I tore off a few pieces of paper for marking every page that had a point I absolutely didn’t want to forget...only to find my book looked a little as though I had mistaken it for a recycling bin. The length of this review can be attributed in part to the fact that there is simply a lot to discuss in QUIET and in part to how strongly I related with the subject matter.
Numerous people recommended QUIET to me over the course of months or even years before I finally added it to my to-read list, let alone actually read it. My main fear proved unfounded as soon as I started reading, but I’ll share: I worried the content wouldn’t be news to me. Despite all the raving, I noticed a pattern. Extroverted people seemed the most impressed: “Hey! Did you know introverts aren’t just weirdos? They actually have something to offer society?” Yes, yes, I’m bitterly paraphrasing, but I heard that general, more tactfully put surprise dozens of times. As an introvert, I already know what many people seemed to be taking away from this book and worried that it would be one big collection of “duh” for me. Except once I started reading, I found QUIET such a validating book for an introvert. Actually there was plenty of information in here new to me as well, especially in terms of specific studies, data, case histories, quotes, etc. backing up concepts I intuitively suspected. (As one example of something new I learned, I had never heard the word “ambivert” used for those people particularly split between the two labels of introversion and extroversion.) Aside from the wealth of information, though, I primarily enjoyed a close analysis that repeatedly reminded me: it’s okay to be me.
I’ve always described myself as an introvert, but sometimes when I voice as much my friends act shocked. One even protested recently, “But I think of you as a social butterfly!”, a reaction that I found amusing and possibly flattering but inaccurate. As in most cases where people have almost opposite interpretations, the root problem is how we define those terms. Some people hear “introvert” and think socially inept. I can and do socialize and network and even enjoy doing so. I have always defined introvert vs. extrovert by how you recharge (which is the primary definition that Cain utilizes). A party might be fun for both an introvert and an extrovert, but it’s actually “refueling” the extrovert and “draining” the introvert. An introvert, such as myself, will still need some alone time after the party before feeling refreshed. Another way Cain puts it later is that extroverts require more stimulation than introverts. We all seek out the perfect balance of stimulation and try to avoid both being over- and under-stimulated. This emphasizes why introverts and extroverts can struggle compromising on a social activity. A setting that might be just right for an extrovert is likely too bustling, noisy, and overwhelming for an introvert. It also emphasizes why introverts usually prefer one-on-one interactions. Introverts tend to “take in” more in terms of observation and feel a little besieged when there’s so much sensory data to sift through. I related to this from personal experience. I sometimes feel the bigger the event the less I’ll speak. Why? Because I have trouble narrowing my focus. At big events, I often end up quietly torn between multiple conversations. I can’t help listening to the one on my right as well as the one on my left, not to mention the one across the table and the one behind me at a different table or even the high-volume one coming from across the room. Because of all this distraction and my split attention, I’m not really actively involved in any of the conversations; I’m overstimulated. Well, I already felt certain of as much, but I’m definitely an introvert according to Cain’s informal quiz. Due to my experiences of people being surprised when I label myself as introverted, I really resonated with Cain’s assertion that creative people - such as writers like myself - are often “socially poised introverts.”
Which leads in to some of the annoying misconceptions about introverts that QUIET sets about debunking. First of all, there’s the assumption that introverted means a lack of social skills. Second, a lack of social interest. Neither is true. In fact, at the back of the book Cain reveals that she almost didn’t use the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.” At first she worried about starting out with such terms already laden with judgments and fallacies and even considered creating her own new words for the traits she’s describing. Of course, she eventually opted for embracing the existing terms with the goal of helping people reframe how we define these words. Another common mistake is confusing introverted with shy. I can be a very quiet person and in such situations I often hear people describe me as shy. “But I’m not shy,” I think. “I’m quiet.” As Cain explains, shy is a social anxiety whereas quiet is choosing not to speak. Since I’m perfectly comfortable and secure in the social situation, I’m not shy - even if I’m not saying much. I recall attending an acting summer camp as a preteen that rated participants at the end of the week on a number of factors, confidence being one of them. The instructors gave me an extremely (practically 0) score for confidence and I felt indignant. I knew why they did this: because I wasn’t loud. The kids who earned high confidence scores always used a high volume, always had something to say, and often interrupted each other to say it. Luckily, I had enough sense of self that this experience didn’t tear me down as it could have, but it certainly made a lasting impression about what traits our society values. I also battle the irritating assumption from some people that if I’m not talking I’m not thinking. People often associate more talking with being smarter, but research suggests the opposite: that talkative people often speak without thinking and quiet people are busy observing their surroundings, carefully selecting their words, and filtering their thoughts into what is and isn’t worthwhile to share aloud.
Let me repeat that this is an incredibly validating read for an introvert. I related to so much of what Cain wrote. I don’t really believe in one-size-fits-all labels and certainly not everything that’s “generally” true for introverts is true for me. As one example, I was a very low reactive baby and usually those grow up into extroverts. However, I really enjoyed all the “Hey! Me, too!” moments when Cain writes about a behavior I notice in myself. I’ve perceived for almost a decade now that I prefer one-on-one interaction the most with small groups of 2-5 being my second choice and huge, rowdy social outings not my taste at all. The bigger the group, the more alone I feel. I talk less and barely get to know anyone. I love that when I spend time with only one other person we really take the time to learn more about each other. I also have trouble projecting artificial enthusiasm, something I never connected with my introverted side until I read this book. Cain mentions that extroverts tend to bounce from one hobby to another while introverts stick determinedly with a few or even one passion. I only discovered my zeal for writing about 9 years ago, but I’ve never looked back from the second I felt: “I was meant to do this.” For that matter, my obsession with books and reading predates my own writing. I nodded along when Cain states that happier people perceive setbacks as opportunities for growth. Through all my years of observing more than talking I’ve noticed how someone can have an awful, awful, awful past or experience but they fight their way through it with admirable resolve while another person can let a much smaller misfortune infect their outlook on every aspect of their life.
Cain divides the book thematically with each chapter presenting yet another engaging topic for discussion. One examines the role of free will in our temperament and personalities. Another looks at introversion vs. extroversion in the workplace. I loved the chapter that examines how these traits are viewed and valued differently across cultures. And I also really enjoyed the chapter about the communication gap between the types. Introverts and extroverts interpret social situations entirely different, which leads to miscommunications when they’re in any relationship, be it romantic, friendly, or familial. Take for example when an introvert and an extrovert in a close relationship fight. To many extroverts raising your voice in a fight shows how much you care about the person and the topic. You wouldn’t get so worked up if you weren’t invested. Meanwhile, introverts think it’s more respectful to lower your voice and not let your emotions show too much lest they distract from the point. Then the extrovert thinks the introvert doesn’t care and the introvert thinks the extrovert is lashing out at them.
This book is a brilliant choice for a book group, since there is so much to discuss. (Which is exactly why my review got away from me!) There’s the nature vs. nurture debate as related to introversion vs. extroversion. As with everything, Cain supplements her insights with an abundance of research. In this case, she points out that identical vs. fraternal twins are ideal for nature vs. nurture studies and, in fact, they have found identical twins (even those raised apart) tend to grow up to be both introverted or both extroverted while there’s no statistically significant commonality with fraternal twins. There’s public speaking aversions and how such fears are actually instinct rooted. Predators stare at prey before striking for the kill, so it goes against our instinct to walk into the path of numerous intent gazes. This provides some insight, too, for why those who fear public speaking can act as terrified as if it were a life or death situation. Then there’s how Cain suggests examining what you envy to decide what you should be pursuing yourself.
While Cain primarily keeps her tone light and informative, I found one story depressing. When conducting interviews, Cain spoke with a psychologist who recounted his experience with a very introverted seven-year-old boy. The parents brought in their son, because they were concerned there was something wrong with him. The psychologist could tell right away that these are extremely extroverted parents with an introverted son; they can’t understand his behavior and are genuinely worried that his preference for reading alone rather than roughhousing with the boys indicates possible depression. After talking with the boy, this psychologist was quite convinced that he was entirely emotionally stable, his main anxiety being that he isn’t meeting his parents’ expectations. The sad part is that when the psychologist insisted the boy was fine and suggested they should appreciate him as he is, the parents instead inquired around with different psychiatrists until they found someone who would “treat” their son. The plus side (on a larger scale, not for this boy) is that Cain also shares uplifting stories of parents and children from opposite ends of the spectrum that learn to relate despite their vast differences in perception.
I mentioned earlier that I liked the chapter on different cultural perceptions of this same topic. Specifically, I really related with how Asian cultures tend to view introverts and extroverts. I’ve been very interested in both Japanese as a language and a culture ever since I started studying the language in high school and this added a whole new layer for me to consider in why I clicked so immediately with Japanese culture. Granted, Cain talks more about Chinese culture, but I noticed a crossover with what I’ve observed myself about Japan. Though I had many more bookmarked pages from this chapter, I’m going to single out two points. The first is how class participation varies in the U.S. compared with China. In fact, what we call class participation, some of Cain’s subjects call “talking nonsense.” I wanted to exclaim, “YES!” (on an airplane, where I was reading QUIET) when I read a student’s quote about how it seems to him that the U.S. encourages talking...even if you’re not saying anything of value. Hence, talking nonsense. I’m an adaptable person who has learned how to get an A in a classroom, but will often rant afterwards about the stupid classroom politics that detract from actual learning. Class participation usually encourages talking over thinking. The second point I’m singling out is the difference in what Chinese vs. American high school students say they want in a friend. American high school students use adjectives like: cheerful, enthusiastic, and sociable. Chinese high school students prefer: humble, altruistic, honest, and hardworking.
QUIET also made me laugh more than once. I think Cain presents the single best argument against viewing porn at work. The hilarity lies in how she skips over all the usual ethical, moral, and emotional-based points and cuts right to the intellectual. I’m also tickled by the fitting if humorous term “behavioral leakage.” In all her dissection of free will vs. temperament and acting more extroverted than you feel, she reminds us that your true personalities will always seep out a little. I immediately thought of actors. When discussing whether an actor is skilled or not, I compare him or her in different roles. Some popular actors don’t strike me as particularly skilled, because they bring the same little ticks and habits to every role. This is probably behavioral leakage. I’ve always admired the actors who seem reinvented in a different role. They’ve considered everything from expressions to inflection to posture to gestures. Speaking of funny parts, I also laughed aloud at Cain’s footnote about her second grade subject Isabel, who is an example of an introverted child with an extroverted mother determined to love her daughter for herself. When I read a few quotes from Isabel, I immediately skipped back to double check her age. “What an articulate young girl,” I thought. Then I noticed the footnote after one quote and read Cain’s defense that, yes, that’s how Isabel talks. Apparently, enough pre-publication readers accused her of manipulating the girl’s dialogue “because no second grader talks like that!” that she needed a footnote to insist these are direct quotes. I was impressed by Isabel but not suspicious, perhaps because I related. As a child, I often preferred the company of adults to other children for the more stimulating conversation and my mom used to joke, “Rachel’s 3 going on 30.”
Though I knew as much beforehand for most of Cain’s point generally speaking, I definitely didn’t know all the research. She talks about the person-situation debate: do fixed personality traits exist or do we adapt to the situation? Then there’s Free Trait Theory, which proposes that we’re born with certain personality traits but can act out of character if doing so serves one of our core personal projects. That certainly explains why it’s easier for me acting extroverted at a literature conference than a party. The conference serves my passion for writing, books, and reading. Cain talks about the big five traits a little: introversion-extroversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. I was particularly intrigued by her assertion that, while extroverts have an easier time making new friends than introverts, it’s agreeableness that counts most for lasting, harmonious friendships than where you land on the introvert-extrovert scale.
I’m nearing the end of this review, let me reassure you, but I also wanted to talk about Gandhi a little. I knew who Gandhi was, of course, and perhaps a little more than average about him since a friend in high school was obsessed with him, but Cain shared details about Gandhi with which I wasn’t previously acquainted. Such as the time a judge in South Africa asked him to remove his turban before taking his oath as a lawyer. He did and was chastised by his friends afterwards. Gandhi said later that he knew resisting on principle had a moral-basis, but he was there for a purpose and he wouldn’t let an argument over a turban distract from the purpose. I also didn’t know that Gandhi disliked the term “passive resistance” even though people associate it so strongly with his mentality. He preferred “satyagraha,” which means “firmness in pursuit of truth.” He didn’t perceive his approach as passivity, but as determining your goal and not letting yourself be let astray from that goal.
Cain has impressively researched her book and I admired how she organized the notes. With all her references, footnotes and especially superscript numbers cluttering up the page would have been a horrible distraction from an engaging work. Instead there are 46 pages of notes in the back, organized by page number. If you want to know on what research Cain bases her assertions she makes it easy to look up.
Cain’s conclusion is a concise compression of some points from the book. My favorites include “think quality over quantity” for relationships. At different points in my life, I have had a handful of very close friends vs. hung out with huge social groups. I definitely prefer the former. I want a “friend” to be someone I know backwards and forwards, not someone I sometimes do things with. I also love the quote: “spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.” That took me a while to master. I would often have free time and think I should go to a party before realizing I don’t want to go to the party. I want to read!
I only have one, petty criticism for this book. Cain uses “OK” a lot. I always want to see that word spelled out (“okay”) in writing, not abbreviated, and she uses it frequently so it tripped me up every time. Okay, not OK, okay?
QUIET is enlightening for extroverts, validating for introverts, and worthwhile for everyone. The book is chockfull of worthy discussions, making it a fantastic selection for book groups. Let me assure you that even my lengthy review represents only a small slice of the cake. Dig in!